Join a booming nursing specialty
Nurses considering advanced practice opportunities can potentially find a home in psychiatric nursing. Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNP) provide mental health counseling, consulting, diagnosis and treatment, supporting their patients’ whole health rather than only their physical health.
Nurse practitioner represents one of the fastest growing careers in the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of nurse practitioners is expected to rise 45% from 2022-2032. It’s a great time for Registered Nurses (RN) to consider advancing their careers to the next level, and becoming a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner can be a very rewarding specialty.
How you can become a PMHNP:
1. Become an RN
The first step to becoming a PMHNP is to work as an RN—if you don’t already (if you do, go ahead and skip to step 2).
Do I need to be an RN to become a PMHNP?
You are required to have a registered nurse license to become a PMHNP.
Education and employment requirements may vary depending on the state in which you practice. You may not need to be a registered nurse to qualify for enrollment into some entry level nurse practitioner programs. These programs will educate you as a nurse eligible for the NCLEX and then proceed with education as a PMHNP. Upon graduation and during the job search, you may find that some employers may require a minimum amount of RN experience from job applicants prior to practicing as a PMHNP.
Reasons it’s worth starting as an RN
Beginning your nursing career as an RN, as opposed to committing to the graduate-level PMHNP pathway from square 1, has practical benefits, including increased eligibility for a wide variety of PMHNP programs and opportunity for certification/licensure.
For instance, in order to apply for the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certification (PMHNP-BC) and become board certified, you will need to hold a current, active RN license in the U.S.
If you are currently not in nursing and/or hold a non-nursing degree, you may find it’s hard to go right from non-nursing to PMHNP. Some schools offer “direct entry” programs which may not require you to hold a nursing degree or RN license. However, availability can be limited, and the scope of these programs can be very demanding over a short time period. Direct entry programs aren’t right for everyone.
There’s a lot you can learn by first becoming an RN. You’ll learn the fundamentals of nursing through both your undergraduate education and direct experience on the job, becoming more familiar with how healthcare practitioners work together to deliver patient care. You’ll discover your strengths and weaknesses and develop a clearer understanding of what career path is right for you.
As a registered nurse, you will also have the benefit of working in the healthcare environment and continue earning while you learn.
You may find your calling outside of psychiatry or mental health—or earn valuable experience and skills you can leverage into a very successful career as a PMHNP.
2. Understand the role of a PMHNP
Once you’ve become an RN, the next step is to confirm working as a PMHNP is right for you.
As a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, your responsibility is to assess, diagnose, and treat patients exhibiting psychiatric or addictive disorders. The precise scope of practice can vary by state, but a PMHNP job description typically includes:
- Provide psychological counseling (psychotherapy)
- Order and interpret tests
- Responding promptly to patient questions and concerns
- Collaborate with doctors/physicians, nurses, administrators, and additional health professionals
- Conduct research
- Prescribe medication and monitor its effects
PMHNPs can potentially work with patients across the lifespan, including both children and adults. They can work in hospitals, private practices, mental health centers, primary care offices or government institutions.
Mental health nursing is quite different from general medical/surgical nursing. The role is much more verbal than hands-on. Setting boundaries is important: work/life balance can be an issue for PMHNPs with patients who communicate via phone calls or emails outside of work hours or appointments.
As a PMHNP you pursue your patients’ whole health. This presents unique challenges beyond healing physical wounds. While you may avoid the stress of critical or emergency care, managing depression, anxiety, or addiction can be a huge long-term challenge. When you rise to the challenge, psychiatric nursing can be an incredibly rewarding specialty.
3. Earn a graduate-level education
After becoming an RN and confirming the PMHNP pathway, your next step is to earn a graduate-level education in psychiatric mental health nursing.
Online pathways with Herzing University
Our current online programs (PMHNP) are built for practicing RNs and Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) who hold an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN/ADN), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).
Our MSN – Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program is designed for current RNs who hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). You can graduate in less than 2 years (as few as 20 months).
The Accelerated RN to MSN program is designed for current ADN/ASN nurses. The PMHNP concentration takes as few as 24 months to complete. In 2 years, you can launch your career to the next level.
Pivot your nursing career in a new direction. Leverage your MSN education into a post master’s certificate (PMC), and you can become a psychiatric NP online in less than 2 years (as few as 20 months).
All programs can be completed online, and you can potentially lower the cost by transferring college credit from prior coursework.
4. Complete clinicals
Your preparation to work as a PMHNP goes beyond academic classes. Practical training and experience are key components of your education.
One of the eligibility requirements for PMHNP-BC exam is a minimum of 540 faculty-supervised clinical hours as part of your PMHNP program.i
We believe the best preparation for an advanced practice role is real, prescriptive learning through every day experience. As part of our PMHNP program options, every experience counts, including both direct patient care and telemedicine/virtual care. If you discover an opportunity to further develop your skills as a PMHNP, you can apply credit towards your clinical hours.
After completing your education and earning valuable experience in clinicals, the next step is to get certified.
i. Our program options range from 540-585 total clinical hours.
5. Get certified
We strongly recommend getting certified after graduating with your master’s degree. You’ll be in the best position to find a great job and continue to advance your career. Some states and organizations require certification to practice.
By enrolling in one of our accredited PMHNP program options1, you’ll meet the eligibility requirements to sit for the ANCC PMHNP-BC certification exam to become a Board Certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner.
Once you pass the exam, the credential is valid for 5 years. From then on, you’ll need to meet the renewal requirements in place when your certification is due for renewal.
6. Become eligible to practice in your state
Note the difference between being licensed and certified: becoming certified shows employers you are capable of patient care in a psychiatric setting, while licensure determines if you are legally allowed to practice in your state of residence.
Each state has their own requirements for licensure as an advanced practice nurse. You will need to locate the requirements and they can be found on your state’s board of nursing website as well as the current process for licensure.
Keep in mind employers may require board certification before hiring a PMHNP even if practicing without certification is legally permissible in your state.
Frequently Asked Questions
The role of a PMHNP can overlap with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other healthcare professionals who routinely perform psychotherapy. However, the total scope of practice for each role is different and varies by state requirements.
Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners hold a master’s degree or doctorate in nursing, while a psychiatrist is a physician who went to medical school and completed a residency program specializing in psychiatry.
PMNHPs can do many things a psychiatrist does, including psychotherapy, prescribing medications, developing and managing treatment plans and educating patients and their families.
Psychiatrists are typically able to treat more complex types of disorders, but PMNHPs may treat many common disorders like anxiety, depression, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Schizophrenia, substance abuse/addiction, and much more.
The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis estimates the demand for psychiatric nurse practitioners will rise 18% from 2016-2030.
In regard to all nurse practitioners, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 45% increase in employment from 2022-2032, much faster than the average across all U.S. occupations.*
Both of those common types of nurse practitioner specialties are highly rewarding and represent a big step forward for a registered nurse looking to advance their career.
- Choose Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) if…you want to be a true psychiatric/mental health specialist, and enjoy giving a voice to patients who are too often misunderstood. An excellent pathway for nurses who have gained practical experience behavioral health or worked in a community mental health facility and want to continue in the psychiatric field.
- Choose Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) if…you want to specialize in the broader field of family practice across the lifespan and prefer a hands-on approach to patient care. You may pursue many different specialties in neonatal (NICU), pediatric or geriatric care. As an FNP you’ll have a strong educational foundation to pursue your unique career path in family practice. Learn more about the Herzing University MSN – Family Nurse Practitioner program.
Learn more about the biggest differences between FNP vs. PMHNP.
A post-master’s certificate is the best way to bridge from FNP to PMHNP as one of the shortest options for a master’s level education.
Our Post Master's PMHNP certificate program can be completed in 20 months, providing current FNPs a fast path to taking the next step in their NP career.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioners earn an average salary of $124,680 per year ($59.94 per hour).*
NPs specializing in psychiatry/mental health may increase their earning potential by becoming board certified, gaining valuable experience and continuing their education.
Learn more about how much psych NPs can make, including a state-by-state breakdown and estimates across several unique healthcare facilities.